Bannack's Judge Edgerton: A Founding Father of Montana (Part 3 of 4)

Sunlight illuminates a cabin in Bannack. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

Sunlight illuminates a cabin in Bannack. (Photo by Rick and Susie Graetz)

The events leading to the creation of Montana as a territory are carefully recounted in “Montana: A History of Two Centuries” by Michael P. Malone, Richard R. Roeder and William L. Lang. They write:

Idaho Territory was a geographic impossibility. The massive ranges of the Rocky Mountains divided the territory in half, and 1,000 miles separated Lewiston in the west from the far eastern extremities. Even in 1863, Idaho's population was shifting rapidly eastward across the Continental Divide to the mining camps on the upper Missouri. With good reason: the Bannack-Virginia City miners believed that Lewiston – hundreds of miles away over endless, snow-clogged mountain passes – could never govern them properly. Miners began agitating for the creation of a new territory to be split from Idaho along the crests of the Rockies.

Fortunately for their cause, Judge Sidney Edgerton, the newly appointed chief justice of Idaho, arrived at Bannack in September 1863. Edgerton, a former Ohio congressman, was unable to proceed to Lewiston because of the approach of winter. He soon learned that the governor of Idaho had snubbed him by assigning him to the faraway judicial district lying east of the divide. Both Edgerton and his nephew, Wilbur Fisk Sanders, took up the settlers’ crusade to divide Idaho Territory. Edgerton personally knew the president and many congressmen, so the miners chose to send him to Washington, D.C., to press their case. Carrying $2,000 in gold, Edgerton headed east in January 1864. Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature at Lewiston obligingly petitioned Congress to carve a new territory named Jefferson out of Idaho, with the dividing line along the Continental Divide and the 113th meridian, locating Idaho’s new eastern boundary just west of the Deer Lodge Valley.

Edgerton’s friendship with President Abraham Lincoln led to his appointment as the first governor of Montana Territory on June 27, 1864. Facing the job of creating a government for the territory, his first order of business was to name Bannack the “capital.” The choice was simple – Bannack was where Edgerton lived, and he didn’t want to move.

With the designation of the new territory, a Legislature was needed – another task for the governor. At noon on Dec. 12, 1864, Gov. Sidney Edgerton presided over the 20 newly elected representatives in Bannack for the first meeting of the Montana Territorial Legislature. After a joint session, the 13-member House reconvened in a two-story log building, and the seven-member Council (the future Senate) met in a smaller structure nearby. The precise location of the original “chambers” is not known, but early accounts place them in the vicinity of the Hotel Meade, which wasn't built until 1875.

Even as the historical first session was nearing a close, Bannack’s political future looked bleak. The once easy-to-find gold was playing out, and folks were leaving. On Feb. 7, 1865, the lawmakers voted to move the capital to Virginia City, which grew out of the biggest gold strike ever in Montana at Alder Gulch on May 26, 1863. Virginia City retained first city status until April 19, 1875, when it too lost population and finally relinquished its title to Helena.

During the territory’s initial 16 months of existence, Montana had no territorial secretary who could sign federal warrants. This meant the governor could not spend federal funds. As a result, Edgerton, hoping to someday be reimbursed, paid for much of the cost of establishing a government out of his own pocket.

In late September 1865, a secretary finally arrived. Thomas Francis Meagher was appointed by Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson, to be secretary of Montana Territory with an office in Virginia City.

Edgerton turned the reins of government over to the new secretary, effectively making Meagher acting governor. Edgerton then left Bannack immediately to attend to personal business in Ohio and Montana concerns in Washington, D.C. President Johnson intensely disliked Republicans like Edgerton and seized this opportunity to get rid of him. Montana owes its size and name to the efforts of this gentleman from Ohio. Bannack would not have enjoyed its reign as first territorial capital and the distinction of serving as the foundation for the territory and future state of Montana if Sidney Edgerton hadn’t chosen it. Whatever followed in terms of government had its roots in the little mining camp on Grasshopper Creek.

University of Montana | Department of Geography | Rick and Susie Graetz